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07.25.2017
Donald Farmer
Writer/Director
Horror Interview by The Gravedigger
04.04.11

Q: Your name is most associated for writing/directing low-budget horror movies, like CANNIBAL HOOKERS and RED LIPS. How do you think filmmaking in the 80s and 90's differs than filmmaking today? Well, as someone who started making independent horror films in the mid 80's, I see three major differences today:

High def cameras make it possible to make films on a dirt cheap budget with picture resolution approximating film...at least the look of 16mm if not 35mm. When I started with my first films DEMON QUEEN and CANNIBAL HOOKERS, there were two choices...shoot the expensive way on film or use video camera of sometimes dubious quality. My first four films were all shot on three-quarter inch...a format that must be expertly lit to look presentable. In the hands of a clueless cinematographer, (like the one I hired on DEMON QUEEN) three-quarter looks like a blurry-edged dupe of a dupe of a dupe. CANNIBAL HOOKERS came off the best of all my three-quarter movies only because most of it was shot by a very talented DP I was darn lucky to get, who knew how to use color gels and filters - plus kept us all entertained with stories of being a camera assistant for Orson Welles and TV's DARK SHADOWS.

Editing is so much easier now with non-linear software...in the 80's you have to build your edit in order from the head of a master tape. Say you're 30 minutes in and you spot a problem you overlooked at the seven minute mark. Fixing it meant redoing all the subsequent 23 minutes worth of edits. And when you're paying these editors by the hour or by the session, slim chance it's gonna happen. On VAMPIRE COP we were building our master on an ungainly one inch master tape at the Roy Disney Production Center in Orlando, though a deal worked out by my co-producer. I remember that edit session 'cause the whole editing bay had a huge picture window where people on the Disney World tour could stroll by unannounced and watch what you're working on. And VAMPIRE COP had a fair share of nudity and sex scenes, so I'm afraid some of those kids at the Magic Kingdom got an eye full.

But with all the tech improvements of today, there's one thing I REALLY miss about the 80's...the DEALS. Back then, video companies like Vestron, Prism and the rest were paying five and six figure advances for direct-to-video content. Even the bottom-of-the-rung groups I sold to like Mogul Communications, Atlas and Magnum gave decent advances that usually covered basic production costs. But it's a different story now...you have to have an almost A-list film to get decent money, and most of the smaller labels no longer pay advances period! One friend recently make a $200,000 High Def horror film with a no name cast. He sold it to Lions Gate for $60,000 (paid in installments). So he has the prestige of having the same distributor as the SAW series...but he's still one forty in the hole!

Q: What is your favorite movie that you have directed and why?

Probably a tie between COMPELLING EVIDENCE and AN EROTIC VAMPIRE IN PARIS. On the former I had my biggest budget and my best cast - Brigitte Nielsen, Dana Plato, Melissa Moore, and Lynn Lowry. Melissa had started with me on my ultra cheap SCREAM DREAM, then gone to California and worked with Jim Wynorski and Roger Corman. So when I finally had a decent budget it was nice to hire her again under improved circumstances. And I'd been a huge fan of Lynn's since seeing her in I DRINK YOUR BLOOD, THE CRAZIES and CAT PEOPLE. I'd interviewed her in 1984 for my fanzine THE SPLATTER TIMES and had originally tried to put Lynn in the cast for VAMPIRE COP in '89. That fell through, so I was glad to make it up to her five years later with a nice role in COMPELLING EVIDENCE. Plus that film had all the bonuses you want - a decent sized crew, actual on set CATERING, nice accomadations at the Atlanta Holiday Inn for everyone, plus a $4 million dollar mansion we rented for our main location. That movie was one of four back-to-back films I did for a Georgia production company, but it was the most lavish and had my favorite script of the bunch. Even Brigitte Nielsen complimented me on the dialog I wrote for her and she was a dream to work with - a all around great shoot! And it remains the best distributed of all my movies, with TV deals in thirty-plus countries. In Germany it's so popular it's been released on DVD four times!

As for AN EROTIC VAMPIRE IN PARIS, I shot it on location under the title VAMPIRE OF NOTRE DAME, and that picture helped scratch my itch to make my version of a Euro-horror/sexploitation film - maybe not as artful as Jean Rollin or Franco, but in the same general ballpark. I'd already been to Paris at least a half dozen times by this point, so knew the city pretty well and which locations would be workable for a indie crew with no filming permits or insurance. I mean, everyone goes in Notre Dame Cathedral with their video cameras so why couldn't I bring mine...and just happen to be shooting a movie while I'm there. We staged a lesbian scene in the same Place de la Concorde Ferris Wheel Jonathan Demme used for his Markie Mark movie...once you're inside there with two girls and a camera - who's gonna stop you? And then I doused the whole thing with public domain music from Mahler and Chopin to give it a semi-respectability. Even used the same Mahler cues that Visconti used on DEATH IN VENICE - in case anyone wanted to see my movie as a lesbian spin on Thomas Mann. But probably the best thing about that movie was Misty Mundae's performance - she probably got the best reviews for anything I've done. I'm not surprised she's doing bigger things now like MASTERS OF HORROR and CSI.

Q: What is your least favorite?

Have to go with my first movie DEMON QUEEN...just SO many mind-numbing mistakes on that one. I made a co-production deal with a Nashville video production company, who they were in charge of shooting and editing. I wrote and directed, and - for the only smart decision I made - hired a former Tom Savini assistant named Rick Gonzales to do the effects. And Rick's effects are the ONLY thing DEMON QUEEN has going for it. The guy who shot it had no clue about lighting, and I was too green to be proactive in that area, so lots of shots with one light making ugly shadows on the walls behind the actors. Most of the actors on that shoot hated being there - who could blame them? The female lead, Mary Fanaro, had just done the lead in Tim Ritter's 16mm TRUTH OR DARE, so working on my shot-on-video quickie wasn't the direction she envisioned her career going. Years later Mary scored a part in Oliver Stone's ANY GIVEN SUNDAY - so God bless her! But back to DEMON QUEEN I made the huge mistake wasting part of my meager budget on a casting director, and this guy acted like the personal agent of every actor he hired and made my life miserable. I could barely speak to an actor without being overruled and screamed at - always with the threat, "With ONE PHONE CALL I can get Mr. George Folsey Jr. on your ass!" I wondered for years who George Folsey Jr. was...found out later he was John Landis's editor. But what actual connection he had with my casting director I'll never know! And then to stop off this shitstorm, I signed a contract with Mogul Communications for the film's release one week before being offered TEN TIMES Mogul's advance by Motion Picture Marketing (the company behind the theatrical release of Fulci's GATES OF HELL).. When I told MPM I'd signed with Mogul and couldn't accept their deal, I think I actually saw little winged dollar bills flying out my window.

Q: Which do you prefer, writing or directing?

I was more interested in directing when I started in 1986. But when you're just starting out and have a rock bottom budget, scripting your own movie is kind of an economic necessity. So I just took the attitude that doing my own movies meant doing writing the scripts, raising the budgets, directing and whatever else I couldn't afford to hire somebody for. One thing I usually DON'T do is make-up effects...I like to leave that to the professionals. I can do some basic effects, but I was lucky on my few few movies to have Rick Gonzales and Brian Sipe. Rick had just assisted Tom Savini on DAY OF THE DEAD when I hired him for DEMON QUEEN, and he went on to do SCREAM DREAM and VICIOUS KISS with me. I hired Brian Sipe when he answered an ad I placed...he'd never worked on a movie but was making these incredible animated dinosaurs for a museum in California. I went to his house, saw a 20 foot Tyrannosaurs Rex in his carport and immediately hired him to do the effects for CANNIBAL HOOKERS. Now Brian is one of the biggest effects guys in the industry - working on things like PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON and the new STAR TREK movie. I don't know how thrilled he is to have CANNIBAL HOOKERS on his imdb page but it was great to work with Brian that one time. I'm sure now I wouldn't be able to afford him!

Q: You've worked with quite a few genre actors, from Robert Z'Dar to William Smith to Tina Krause. Any interesting on-set stories about dealing with these personalities?

I'm a big believer in putting names in a movie if you can afford it...it's the quickest way to get some attention for your movie and make it stand out a little from all the other direct-to-dvd movies on he shelf. Even an obscure cult name is better than nothing - that's why I was excited to have Mal Arnold do a few days on VAMPIRE COP for me. Mal had only been in a couple of H.G. Lewis movies, SCUM OF THE EARTH and BLOOD FEAST, but he's forever gonna be Fuad Ramses in people's minds. So I brought Mal down to Florida and had a great time working with him...I'd hoped VAMPIRE COP would spread the word that he was still around so other directors would hire him, but poor Mal hasn't done another film to this day. At least Joe Bob Briggs made a fuss about Mal being in the cast when he reviewed VAMPIRE COP for his newspaper column.

I've been a fan of William Smith's since seeing him in C.C. AND COMPANY with Ann Margret, so was thrilled to have him in DEADLY MEMORIES. He came down with hs girlfriend/manager and after a little drama about switching him to a more bigger hotel we got along fine. As a little inside joke, I'd named all the major characters in DEADLY MEMORIES after characters in the Ayn Rand novel ATLAS SHRUGGED just to see if anyone would notice. And Bill caught on the very first day, so I was pretty impressed. And so far he's the ONLY one who caught it!

When I had a decent budget on COMPELLING EVIDENCE to hire a name, I immediately tried for Natassja Kinski but got shot down by her manager...even though we could afford to hire her. I quickly learned a major casting rule in the industry.. just because you can afford a star doesn't mean they'll work for you. In Natassja's case, she really didn't need to work, so she could afford to be picky about her projects. But most mid-level stars have big-time bills to pay, and putting their salary in an excrow account (for proof of ability to pay), is usually all you need to close the deal. We ended up getting Brigitte Nielsen and she was a total sweetie - everone on the set loved her. She would sing songs and joke around between takes. She brought her pet wolf cub with her, and we all took turns walking it around the block.

Right after COMPELLING EVIDENCE I did VICIOUS KISS and needed a name for the female lead. I tried for Tanya Roberts (then fresh off Fred Olen Ray's INNER SANCTUM) but she said my script was too pervy for her taste. The Executive Producer immediately made me tone down the script's most lurid scenes, then we tried again...this time with Margaux Hemingway. I'd been a huge fan of Margaux's ever since seeing LIPSTICK in 1976 (not to mention KILLER FISH) so couldn't believe she was actually doing my movie -and for twice as many days as Brigitte Nielsen worked! We had a rocky start - I made the mistake of asking about her sister Mariel and got the ultimate in icy stares. It took a couple of days to get on her good side, but pretty soon she was telling me all the juicy stories about her life I wanted to hear. Turned out she was good friends with my favorite Italian director Marco Ferreri, who I'd met a few years earlier, so that gave us something in common to talk about. By the end of the shoot I was really sad to see her go, and her parting words to everyone were, "You are the most polite crew I've ever worked with." Then when I heard about her death 10 months later, I was kicking myself for not staying in touch with her.

As for Robert Z'Dar, he's a great guy and we actually did stay in contact with him for a few years after we worked together. He would call me out of the blue every year or so to see what's going on. Lots of fun to hang out with...just maybe too much of a party animal for my speed. We've had some other oddball castings in my movies...when I co-produced DEMENTED for director Richard Martin, we had Jim Van Bebber, Michelle Bauer and Angela Bowie - the ex-wife of David Bowie. How's that for a cast? I was the Production Manager on another Martin film called NO JUSTICE where he gave me a $10,000 "celebrity budget" after he tried and failed to land any names himself. He apparently pissed Charles Napier off on the phone, and did the same with William Sanderson from BLADE RUNNER. Luckily, I'd kept Cameron Mitchell's phone number after interviewing him for THE SPLATTER TIMES. I'd already given him number out to Fred Olen Ray when Fred was casting THE TOMB. Now I finally had a chance to hire Cameron for a shoot that I'd be working on, so I did a quick sell with Martin...tellng him this was the guy from THE HIGH CHAPARELL and CAROUSEL. Of course, the reason I really wanted Mitchell was 'cause he starred in BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, NIGHTMARE IN WAX and THE TOOLBOX MURDERS, but no need to let my producer know that! It was so great to be with Mitchell for a few days, hearing all his stories about working with Mario Bava, Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Marilyn Monroe, etc. Mitchell took most of my "celebrity" budget, but I was able to hire Camille Keaton for the balance and we had our two stars. Another guy in the movie had been in Oliver Stone's PLATOON, but we got him for scale. The lesson here: co-starring in an Oscar winning movie doesn't make you a name...but being the star of "I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE" definitely does!

Q: You've also had a lot of acting gigs, from an underground zombie in Romero's DAY OF THE DEAD to BLOOD FEAST 2 to the most recent COUNTRY STRONG. How did you land those specific roles?

Being in DAY OF THE DEAD sort of came about by accident. This was in 1984, two years before I attempted my first movie, and I was covering film productions for FANGORIA. I'd already covered Stephen King's CAT'S EYE for them and requested the assignment to go on the set of DAY OF THE DEAD. But this was a huge George Romero movie and the editor, Bob Martin, told me he was doing this gig himself. So being the determined type, I offered my planned article to FANTASTIC FILMS and L'ECRAN FANTASTIQUE (a French fantasy film magazine) and arranged for Romero's publicist to book me on the press junket for DOTD. When I got to Pittsburgh, I joined Martin, Kurt Loder from ROLLING STONE, Michael Musto from US and a few more at the local Holiday Inn where we got some interesting news from Romero's producer. Romero thought we could write much better articles if we all acted in the movie and played zombies...were we up for it? Being invited by George Romero to be in the sequel to DAWN OF THE DEAD didn't take a lot of thought on my part, so next day I was being made up by future Academy Award winner Howard Berger as a broken-necked zombie with a gaping throat wound. Lucky bastard Bob Martin got to be the only one of our press group personally made up by Tom Savini. Of couse, nowadays, Berger is probably one of the biggest effects guys in the world...he's done PULP FICTION, CASINO, KILL BILL and on and on. But at the time I was just irritated that he was doing my make-up instead of Savini.

After that experience, I went into overdrive covering movies for whatever magazine would hire me, hoping lightning would strike twice and I'd be put in those movies too! I went on the set of EVIL DEAD II for a couple of days, even hung out with Sam Raimi all day, but quickly found out that not everyone thinks putting reporters in their movies is a good idea. It wasn't until 2001, when I covered BLOOD FEAST 2 for Fangoria, that H.G. Lewis put me to work as a wedding guest, even giving me the prime seat right next to Dave Friedman while John Waters guest-starred as the preacher. As for COUNTRY STRONG, I went into that simply as a hired extra - got promoted to featured extra and did a little bit I called "pissed off fan who can't find his seat." Since everyone else in the scene was happy and all smiles, I thought appearing on the verge of a nervous breakdown might get me some screen time and it worked. I also co-starred on a VH1 reality show in 2009 where I beat out 2000 actors in a nation-wide casting call for 17 men to live in a mansion with a Playboy model. Everyone was identified on that show by their job title...I was "Donald the Producer." Our first episode had about two million viewers - probably more people than have seen all my movies combined - and that's the ONLY THING I've even done that gave me anything resembling "fans" in the real world. In twenty years of doing low-budget movies, no one ever stopped me on the street and said, "Aren't you the director of CANNIBAL HOOKERS." But for two or three months after this VH1 show aired, I was recognized once or twice a day basically everywhere I went - at the mall, in restaurants, going to the Post Office. Complete strangers would stop me and say, "You're from that VH1 show" or "You're that guy." Once at a chicken place a family had me pose for pictures with all four of their kids, one at a time. Then, just as suddenly as this "instant celebrity" thing happened, it all went again. Three months after the show aired, I couldn't get arrested - it was like it never happened. Easy come, easy go!

Q: Your latest movie is called SHARK EXORCIST? Is that a response to movies like "Gatorpus vs. Kobradile" and other Syfy Channel movies?

I haven't seen any of that Syfy Channel shark movies, but I am a huge fan of 70's horror films. And everyone know the two biggest horror films of the 70's were THE EXORCIST and JAWS. So why not combine them for a movie called SHARK EXORCIST...a shark that's possessed by the devil? I did a google search and nobody else has used that title, so I'm over all it. We start shooting on March 14 - will try to have it out before the end of 2011. Our tag line is "SATAN HAS JAWS!"

Q: What else are you working on?

I'm finishing up a documentary called TWI-HARDS about people obsessed with the TWILIGHT films. Now I actually hate the TWILIGHT series, I walked out on the first one, skipped the second one, and made it through the first 20 minutes of the third one before bolting. But obviously lots of people are borderline crazy for these films, so this is kind of a extreme comic take on what TWILIGHT obsession can do to some people. This is actually my third documentary... I did INVASION OF THE SCREAM QUEENS back in 1991 where we interviewed Michelle Bauer, Brinke Stevens, Martine Beswicke and Mary Woronov. Then a few years ago I did an Iraq war documentary called WHOSE WAR? hosted by Mike Farrell (from tv's M*A*S*H) and co-staring Keith Gordon from DRESSED TO KILL and Jello Biafra from THE DEAD KENNEDYS. It's actually sort of a serious, respectable documentary...you can watch it at www.indieflix.com. I occasionally do a project like that so my imdb page doesn't look quite so trashy. Actually, the first show I ever produced was a one hour special with future Vice President Al Gore for my local tv station - it was just him and me for a full hour doing "q&a." And from that I went straight into DEMON QUEEN.


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